It’s safe to say his days at Bordentown Regional High School were not the proper training ground for Chris Chilelli’s collegiate athletic career.
Chilelli is a junior at SUNY Maritime College, where he is a member of the men’s rowing team and swim team. Neither of those sports are offered at BRHS, as Chris was captain for the track and field and cross country teams, and earned second-team All-BCSL honors in the 3,200 meters.
“We started a swim club my junior year and that lasted three years, but they lost the funding,” said Chilelli, who was a club swimmer outside of high school. “I didn’t do crew at all until I got here my freshman year.”
But he’s forging a pretty good career at both. Chilelli just completed his third season of autumn crew, where he served as the coxswain on the Privateers’ Varsity 8 and Varsity 4 boats. At 5-foot-6, 125 pounds, that’s about the one spot where he can make an impact, as the rowers are big and powerful.
“They’re like weight lifters and football players,” Chilelli said.
Rowing was the last thing he had on his mind when he arrived in the Bronx. His goal in choosing a college was to work on cruise ships, but that soon changed to roll-on, roll-off cargo ships. He visited both King’s Point and Maritime on the same day and decided to apply to Maritime during the visit.
Upon arriving at school for his two-week indoctrination period—the equivalent of orientation at other schools—Chilelli’s indoctrination officer had a chat with him.
“He said ‘We need some coxswains; how do you feel about doing this?’” Chilelli said. “I didn’t think I was in good enough shape to compete well for Maritime’s cross country team my freshman year, so I said I’d try that.”
Being coxswain does not require the strength of the guys actually doing the rowing, but it takes poise, clarity and good leadership abilities. The coxswain steers the boat while yelling out instructions to the rest of the crew. It’s much like being quarterback on a football team.
“Steering is a big part in the fall races,” Chilelli said, adding with a laugh, “It’s a lot of pressure. If you lose it’s because of you and if you win it’s always because of the rowers.”
And yet, he fell in love with it instantly as a freshman.
“One of my first practices I went out on the Heavyweight Varsity Eight with some really athletic guys and had a really great time going down the East River,” he said. “I’m yelling at them, getting them to do their absolute best, and then getting yelled at by a coach for not doing what they say my fourth day in the water. It was just a lot of fun.”
If there was ever any doubt he was in the sport to stay, that disappeared in his second regatta at the Head of the Charles in Boston.
“That’s one of the biggest collegiate regattas in the whole country,” Chilelli said. “That was really great. I was thrown in a boat right away. We only had three coxswains my freshman year. I was mostly with the second varsity boats for heavyweights, or the best freshman boat.
“The whole thing was a lot of fun right away. We had a lot of upperclassmen who were just great people to hang out with and great inspirational people.”
Chilelli felt that his biggest highlights in rowing so far were being in the Lightweight 4 boat that won the New York State championship in the spring of his freshman year; and being in the Varsity 4 boat this past fall that finished ahead of Duke in the Head of the Charles. While Maritime is a Division III program, men’s crew does not break down in divisions; so all levels compete with each other.
“Beating Duke was a big deal for us,” Chilelli said. “We have 350 kids in a class here and Duke is quite a larger school. So to put together four guys that can beat their four best guys is pretty impressive.”
What’s also impressive is the way Chilelli has made himself a quality coxswain with absolutely no rowing experience before college. Much of that comes from hard work.
“Chris has been a guiding presence on our team since I’ve met him,” Privateers assistant coach Luke Zappulla said. “He is a student of the sport, always looking to talk rowing or find ways to improve himself and the team. We are very proud of what he has done and we look forward to his contributions going forward.”
And while crew was a brave new world, swimming has long been a Chilelli pastime. He started at age 7 and was a club swimmer for the Jersey Storm in Fort Dix in middle school before moving on to the Jersey Devil Rays out of Rowan at Burlington County College.
He was not recruited for swimming, saying, “We don’t really do a lot of recruiting for swimming. The coach doesn’t want you to come to Maritime just for swimming, he wants you to come because you want to be at Maritime.”
Chilelli wanted to be there and swim, and has pretty much become a do-it-all man. During his first two seasons, Chilelli swam the 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000 and 1,650 freestyles, the 100 and 200 backstrokes, the 100 and 200 breaststrokes, the 100 fly and the 200 and 400 individual medleys. He had planned on swimming the 200 fly early this season, which would mean he did every individual event.
“I don’t do relays, but I do all the individual stuff,” he said. “I do a different event each week just because I’m not really the number one star on the team, but I can take second in whatever he puts me in.”
Not surprisingly, due to his versatility, Chilelli’s best event has been the 400 IM. His highlight in big meets to date came at last year’s Metropolitan Championships, when he finished 20th in the 400 IM in a personal best 4:50.28.
“We are lucky to have someone of Chris Chilelli’s caliber in our program,” swim coach Peter Vecchio said. “One of the best things I like about Chris is his ‘can-do’ attitude on the team. He is one of the few athletes who will regularly and voluntarily swim the more competitive events such as the mile swim and the 400-yard IM. Chris puts himself out there where other athletes are unwilling to go and works hard to put on an excellent performance.”
Chilelli hopes to put that can-do attitude to work on the high seas. He is pursuing his Coast Guard Deck License, but does not want to be in the Coast Guard. The deck license allows him to ship out as a third mate on any civilian vessel of any size that has the U.S. Flag on it. Chris is concerned, however, about the proposed elimination of the Jones Act, a law that regulates maritime commerce in U.S. waters and between U.S. Ports.
“If they eliminate the Jones Act there’s gonna be a lot less U.S. flagged ships and a lot less opportunities for students like myself,” Chilelli said.
If he does get the job that he wants, Chilelli would almost be like a coxswain again. He’d be making sure things run smooth, but on a more serious level.
“As a third mate you’re watching things, and just navigating the seas,” he said. “You do a lot of safety things, checking the life boats, all the fire equipment everything else on board. In a lot of ways it’s similar to coxswain.”
Fortunately for Chilelli, he now has that on his resume.